I had no idea research could be so much fun! I’m currently working on a sequel to DAFFODIL AND THE THIN PLACE as well as a sequel for a My Weekly Pocket Novel that will be published in May, entitled HEART AND HOME. Both take place in and around the Plotlands at Dunton, Essex – an area that fascinates me, and the other day, I decided to walk around the old Plotland area and try to soak up the atmosphere.
I first became aware of Plotlands when I moved to Langdon Hills many years ago and I discovered the ruins of a cottage deep in the woods. Not far away from the fairytale house was a cement path – also in the middle of the woods – which didn’t seem to serve any purpose. It wasn’t until I attended a talk on local history that I learned that the cottage had once been part of Plotlands and that it may once have looked like The Haven in the photo above before the woods gradually engulfed it. The unmade roads were so difficult to walk along that a group of Plotlanders joined together to build a cement path on one side of the road, so people could negotiate their way more easily.
In the 1920s cheap wheat imports caused problems for farmers and encouraged some to divide up their land into plots which were sold off. Many wishing to escape the cramped conditions of the East End of London bought plots, and built weekend cottages and holiday homes. Travel was relatively easy on the London to Southend railway, from Fenchurch Street, to Laindon Station. Plots varied in size but were typically 50ft wide and 150ft long and cost in the region of £5. Gradually buildings sprang up, some rather basic and shed-like, and others more sophisticated. The design and construction were determined by the skills and finances of the plot owner, and as well as buildings, there were tents and even old railway carriages and buses.
The Dunton Hills estate covered a hillside, and consisted of approximately 460 acres from the Lower Dunton Road to about two miles from the A127 Southend Arterial Road. The estate was laid out in a rectangular grid of four broad avenues – 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Avenues – running from the Lower Dunton Road to Hillcrest Avenue along the top of the hill. The four avenues were interconnected about halfway along by Central Avenue. During heavy rainfall, the unsurfaced avenues became so muddy and rutted people routinely wore wellington boots and carried shoes with them to change into once they were out of Plotlands!
During the Second World War many families moved into their holiday and weekend retreats permanently to escape the heavy bombing of London and the population soared to 25,000. After the war, Basildon New Town was created and many of the Plotland properties were given compulsory purchase orders. Eventually, houses were demolished or were left to decay and today, the area is owned by the Essex Wildlife Trust. The only Dunton Plotlands house that remains is The Haven which is now a museum.